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Nietzsche & Values

Nietzsche rejected all conventional morality but he wasn’t a nihilist – he called for a “re-evaluation of all values”. Alexander V. Razin describes the gulf separating him from that other great moralist, Immanuel Kant.

Friedrich Nietzsche presented the world with a philosophy of life that called for a rigorous reevaluation of all values. His critical analysis of Western civilization resulted in him drawing a crucial distinction between the ‘slave morality’ of the masses and the ‘master morality’ of those superior individuals who elevate human society through intellectual creativity. As a result, Nietzsche’s ‘philosophy of overcoming’ emphasizes self-creation and the affirmation of life. Looking ever to the future, he envisioned the coming of a ‘noble man’ who would assert his own will and create his own values without being limited by the false and outmoded values of the mediocre masses.

In sharp contrast, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had attempted to establish moral certainty through his concept of the categorical imperative; “Act only on that maxim which you can will to be a universal law.” In other words, when you are considering a course of action, ask “What would happen if everyone did that?” For Kant, moral judgments must be made independent of the particular circumstances, emotions and motives of the people involved. Thereby, he thought that moral certainty could be achieved in the area of human conduct. Ultimately, his ethical framework required a belief in free will, immortality of the human soul, and a personal God as the moral judge of human behaviour (of course, these are religious assumptions which the atheist Nietzsche would never have allowed in his own inquiry into values).

Furthermore, Kant made a crucial distinction between duty and inclination in order to separate the moral motive from all other motives. An act was only moral if you did it out of duty, regardless of your inclinations. Yet, it is not clear why a human being must always follow a pure moral intention, which would require one to sacrifice his or her own interests for the benefit of others or for the good of the whole. One may argue that Kant arrived at an empty intention in his compulsory appeal to the method of universalisation.

It seems to me, then, that Nietzsche was correct in his scepticism of traditional systematic philosophy. He was also right, surely, to oppose moral nihilism. In an inquiry into values, it is necessary to consider common sense as well as scientific argumentation. It is simply not possible to doubt everything, because this results in both the complete collapse of human conduct and psychological uncertainty. However, rigorous scepticism does throw doubt on metaphysical constructions that merely represent a person’s wishes rather than reality itself.

One may ask: what kind of rational arguments can be raised for the negation of total nihilism and the use of practical scepticism? In my opinion, there are six points that should be taken seriously in making value judgments concerning human existence: (1) life is preferable to death; (2) freedom is an essential aspect of a subjective being; (3) value judgments must take into consideration human society; (4) compassion is a vital aspect for evaluating human conduct; (5) emotions are a necessary condition for happiness; and (6) happiness requires self-realisation on the basis of socially shared values and goals.

In summary, Friedrich Nietzsche was right to emphasize value inquiry. His critical insights into the human condition are invaluable for the development of a future ethics in terms of self-realisation grounded in the utilization of changing values and new goals. We are, unavoidably, creatures with values. For those who reject a supernatural basis for ethics, Nietzsche is essential to understanding our evaluating species.

© Alexander V. Razin 2000

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Harper Torchbooks, 1964.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Penguin, 1990.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, CUP, 1999. Alexander V. Razin, ‘Value Orientation and the Well-Being of Humanity’ in The Journal of Value Inquiry, 30: 113-124, June 1996.

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